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Too soon to judge Rockies' radical rotation idea

The SportsXchange

On June 19, before the start of a three-game series at Philadelphia, manager Jim Tracy announced that struggling Jeremy Guthrie had lost his spot in the rotation and no one would replace him. Instead, the Colorado Rockies would go to a four-man rotation with the starter working on a 75-pitch limit that has gradually been loosened.

In front office parlance, it is a paired pitching plan because three relievers work in tandem or are piggybacked with the starters and throw up to 50 pitches.

When the Rockies made the change, their starters had a 6.28 ERA and a 13-30 record. Now they have a 6.34 ERA and an 18-48 record. The team's overall record was 25-40. Now it's 37-63.

That's too small a time frame to draw any definitive conclusions for two reasons. First, the Rockies are trying to find the right people to fill the pitching roles, and the turnover has been ample. And two, general manager Dan O'Dowd and his staff have analyzed the franchise's 20-year history, pouring over every imaginable metric, documenting workloads and injuries and how Coors Field plays into all this. So any changes based on a mountain of data are not going to appear right away.

Pitching on three days' rest without the opportunity to throw 100 pitches is designed to put a premium on focus and concentration as far as throwing strikes. And the Rockies believe it can also reduce the possibility of injury by having a less tired pitcher on the mound.

When the Rockies went to four starters, they were Josh Outman, Alex White, Jeff Francis and Christian Friedrich. White was soon optioned to Triple-A Colorado Springs, where he has pitched well recently. He's likely to return to the Rockies soon but possibly in a piggyback role.

Outman is currently starting at Double-A Tulsa, having been optioned there after a July 2 start on three days' rest that lasted three innings.

Francis, who returned to the Rockies on June 9, has by far had the most success in the four-man rotation. They are 8-2 in his starts and 5-28 when anyone else starts since Francis made his 2012 Rockies debut.

When he's pitching on the fourth day, which Francis has done three times, he said it's imperative to throw less between starts, and where he might throw a 35-pitch bullpen, he'll cut that to 20. Friedrich put it another way when he said, "It's important to save your bullets."

Drew Pomeranz joined the rotation for the second time this season on July 1. His first two outings were very good, and the 6 1/3 innings Pomeranz pitched at Washington on July 6 while holding the Nationals to one hit and no runs are the longest by a starter since the implementation of the four-man system. But Pomeranz has not made a start on three days' rest.

Pomeranz is also the only starter who has shown any physical effects since the Rockies went with four starters. He had biceps soreness and diminished velocity in three bad innings at San Diego on July 20. He was scheduled to make his next start July 24 on three days' rest, the first time he would do so, but the Rockies pushed that outing back to July 27, and Pomeranz delivered a so-so performance -- seven hits and three runs in 5 1/3 innings against the Reds.

In his last 10 starts, Friedrich has gone 1-7 with a 7.40 ERA. He has made three starts on three days' rest, going 0-2 with a 6.43 ERA in those games, including giving up one run in five innings in a no-decision June 30 against the Padres.

Guthrie re-surfaced in the rotation on July 4 for four starts but melted down badly in the last two at Coors Field, where his ERA was 9.50, and was traded July 20 for Jonathan Sanchez.

Sanchez has made two starts, both poor, and isn't likely to be in the rotation much longer since he's a free agent at the end of the season and the Rockies, with an eye toward 2013, could do better to let someone else start.

In Josh Roenicke, Carlos Torres and Adam Ottavino, the Rockies have found three piggyback relievers who are effective after sorting through others like Tyler Chatwood and Guillermo Moscoso. But the problem has been when the bullpen initially has been brought into play.

Beginning June 19, the Rockies in 35 games have had their starter pitch fewer than five innings 17 times. In that span, the starter has pitched at least five innings 17 times and at least six innings eight times -- and just twice into the seventh.

In addition, Pomeranz for 6 1/3 innings on July 6, Francis faced one batter in the seventh on July 25 when he threw 97 pitches on three days' rest. He'll have five days' rest before he starts Tuesday against the Cardinals.

After Sanchez's regrettable start Sunday against the Reds -- six runs in 4 1/3 innings -- Tracy summed up the task at hand with four starters, whoever they are.

"Finding a group of guys that go out and at least get you 15 outs, that's the key," he said. "There are too many times we are getting 11, 12 outs. It's just very difficult to win when your starting pitcher can't get 15 outs for you.

"As we continue to move forward, finding the group of people that can do what you need them to do efficiently and effectively as starting pitchers -- that's the goal. Those guys that step forward and start to do that on a consistent basis, those are the people that will pitch. And we're waiting for that. We keep creating opportunity for people, but you got to answer the bell."
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